Dostoevsky in Europe

by Himadri Chatterjee

Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon (Zinovieff) says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.


This post was originally published on April 17, 2017 on the blog The Argumentative Old Git, and has been cross-posted here by invitation. The original post can be found here: Dostoyevsky in Europe.

All quotes above are taken from the following translation: Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Kyrill (Fitzlyon) Zinovieff (Alma Classics, 2016).

The cover image is an 1862 illustration by Just L’Hernault, which in the public domain and has been available from the digital image collection of the John Hay Library, Brown University: Les Boulevards de Paris le Jour de l’An.


Himadri Chatterjee is an operational research analyst, lives near London, and has long had a passion for Russian literature, especially for Dostoevsky. He blogs mainly about books on his site The Argumentative Old Git and can be found on Twitter @hairygit.

To be the wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky (part 4)

By Valeriya Mikhailova (translated by Thomas E. Herman)

The original Russian version of this article was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (foma.ru), in Оctober 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman’s English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.

This is the final part of a 4-part series about Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna. For Part 1, please click here; part 3 can be found here.

SONYECHKA

For the vast majority of families, the loss of a child is a fateful trial. This terrible tragedy, through which the Dostoevskys suffered twice in the 14 years of their marriage, only bound them closer. The first time the family encountered this enormous tragedy was during their first year of marriage when their daughter, Sonya, little Sonyechka, having lived only 3 months, suddenly died from a common cold. Anna Grigorievna did not describe much about her grief, because she, with her usual propensity not to think of herself, thought only of Fyodor Mikhailovich – “I was extremely frightened for my poor husband.” Fyodor Mikhailovich, by her recollection, “wept and cried like a woman over the cold body of his beloved daughter, and he covered her pale little face and hands with warm kisses. Such furious despondency I have never again seen.”

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Lyubov Dostoevskaya

After a year, their second daughter, Lyubov, was born. Anna Grigorievna feared that her husband would never be able to love another child, but happily noticed that his joy at this fatherhood eclipsed all prior experience. In fact once in a letter to a critic Fyodor Mikhailovich insisted that a happy family life and the birth of children are three quarters of the happiness which a man can experience on earth.

His relationships with his children were altogether unique. He like no one else could, as Anna wrote, “enter into the world of childhood, understand a child, captivate a child with talk, and become in those moments, himself, a child.”

While abroad, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote The Idiot, and started the novel The Demons (which he finished after returning to Russia). But living far from their home was a very difficult experience for the spouses, and in 1871 they returned to their native land.

Eight days after their return to St. Petersburg, into the family was born a son, Fyodor, and then in 1875 another son, Alyosha, named in honor of righteous Alexius, the man of God – a saint whom Fyodor very much venerated. That was the year that the journal, Fatherland Notes, published his fourth great novel, The Adolescent (Raw Youth).

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Alyosha Dostoevsky

But misfortune struck the family anew. Their son Alyosha inherited epilepsy from his father. His first seizure, which occurred when the boy was 3 years of age, turned out to be fatal… On this occasion the spouses literally changed places. The unfortunate Anna Grigorievna, a woman of unusual strength, nevertheless now was not able to cope with this grief. She lost interest in life, in the other children, which greatly alarmed her husband. He spoke to her urging her to submit to the will of God and continue living. Therefore, that year Dostoevsky made a visit to the (Holy Presentation) Optina Pustyn Monastery. Here he twice met with the Starets Ambrosius, who conveyed to Dostoevsky his blessing and also words which later the author placed on the lips of his hero, the Elder Zosima, in the Brothers Karamazov:

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Anna Dostoevskaya with son Fyodor and daughter Lyubov

“Rachel is weeping for her children, and she could not be comforted, because they are no more. And so to you mothers, there is a boundary laid out on earth. So do not be comforted, you need not be comforted, do not find comfort but cry, only each time that you cry remember unswervingly that your little son is one among the angels of God – from there he gazes and sees you, and is gladdened by your tears, and he shows them to the Lord God. And so for a long time your mighty maternal lamentation will continue, but in the end it will be turned for you into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be converted to tears of tranquil tenderness and of a warm absolution for the one saved.”

His last, and in the opinion of many critics his most powerful novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote from the spring of 1878 until 1880. He dedicated it to his beloved wife, Anna Grigorievna.

“Aneka, you are my angel, my everything, my alpha and omega! And it is so good and how I love that you dream of me in sleep, and ‘awakening, you feel sad that I am not there.’ Be sad, my angel, feel sad in all your dealings about me, which means you love me. This is sweeter to me than honey. I will come and will kiss you.” “But how am I to survive this time without you and without the children. A funny joke, for it is all of 12 days!” These are lines from letters of Dostoevsky, written in the years 1875-1876, during days when he would be gone on business to St. Petersburg, but the family remained at the dacha at Staraya Russa. These lines need no commentary. His family had become for him a quiet haven, and, by his own recognition, he many times over literally fell in love anew with his wife.

Anna Grigorievna to the end of her life could not sincerely even understand what Dostoevsky himself saw in her: “All of my life it seemed to me some kind of an enigma that my good husband not only loved and respected me as other husbands love and respect their wives, but almost bowed down before me as if I were some sort of special being, specifically created just for him. And this was true not just at the first moments of marriage but for all the remaining years until his death. But the reality is that I am not distinguished by beauty, I possess neither talents nor unusual intellectual development, and my education was only to the gymnasium level. And in spite of this I was worthy of the deep adoration and almost worship of such a wise and talented man.”

Of course, she was not an ordinary person, just a ninny or simpleton, whom this genius loved for some reason or other. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved his stenographer; he felt in her not only a compassionate and good character, but an active, strong-willed, and exalted one. She had a rich interior spiritual world and the skill to be a genuine woman with the virtue to remain in the shadow of her husband, being at the same time, without exaggeration, his main inspiration.

And although Anna Grigorievna and Fyodor Mikhailovich really were not compatible personalities, as is now the current pleasant expression, she recognized that she could always be guided by him; and he, relying on her delicacy and concern, completely trusted her, which sometimes surprised Anna Grigorievna. “We little echoed each other, nor accommodated ourselves to each other, nor intertwined our soul – but I – in his inner being – and he in mine – my good husband and I in some fashion, we together felt ourselves a free spirit… This relationship from each side gave us both the possibility to live all the fourteen years of our married life in the greatest possible happiness that people on earth can have.”

It did not fall to Anna Grigorievna’s lot to have an ideal existence – fortunately she was naturally indifferent to fine attire, and grew accustomed to living in constrained circumstances and in constant debt. The great author was also not an ideal husband. For instance he was extremely jealous and could make a scene before his wife and fly off the handle. Anna Grigorievna wisely avoided situations which could anger her husband, and tried to avert the consequences of his hot temper. In times, when he worked as an editor, he could become angry with the insolence of some authors who demanded that he not change even a punctuation mark of their works, and would write a sharp letter to them. But the next morning having cooled down, he very much regretted this, and was ashamed of his quick temper. It happened that Anna Grigorievna on such occasions would not mail the letter until the next morning. When it “turned out” that the harsh letter not not been able to be sent, Fyodor Mikhailovich was always very happy and wrote a new, toned down letter.

Anna did not reproach her husband for his impracticality and gullibility. She was well aware that he could not refuse anyone help. In fact if he did not have any change, he would bring a beggar home and give them money there. “Then those visitors began to come on their own, and having learned the name of my husband thanks to the nameplate on the door, began to ask for Fyodor Mikhailovich. But of course it was I who came out and greeted them. They would tell me about their misfortunes and I gave them 30 or 40 kopeks. Although we are not rich people, we are able to offer such help,” she related.

Their religious beliefs did not prevent the spouses, for some reason, perhaps out of curiosity, from going once to some sort of fortune-teller, who incidentally predicted the death of their son, Alyosha. Nevertheless the Gospel and Christianity were constant accompaniments of their lives.

Anna Grigorievna remembered that when putting the children to bed, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pray together with them, praying the Our Father, Hail Virgin Mother of God and his beloved prayer: “I place all my hope in You, O Mother of God, guard me under your mantle.”

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Anna Dostoevskaya in the 1880s

In 1880 Anna Grigorievna took upon herself the independent publication of his works, establishing an enterprise, “The Book Market of F.M. Dostoevsky – exclusively for non-residents.” And she was successful. The financial situation of the family was corrected and they were able to pay off their debts.

But Fyodor Mikhailovich was not to live much longer. In 1880 his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, came out. In the words of his spouse, this was the last happy occasion of his long suffering life. On the night of January 26, 1881 blood hemorrhaged from his throat; he had suffered from emphysema since his days in the hard labor camp. During the day the hemorrhage recurred, but Fyodor Mikhailovich calmed his wife and distracted the children, so that they would not be frightened. By the time he was able to be examined by a physician, the hemorrhage was so heavy that Dostoevsky lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he asked his wife to call for a priest to receive confession and communion. He spent a great deal of time in confession, and the next morning, after his confession, he said to his wife:

“Anya, you know I have not slept for 3 hours, but have been thinking a great deal, and only now recognize clearly, that today I will die.” He asked that she give him the Gospel, which had been given to him on his path to exile by the wives of the Decembrists, and opened it at random to the following (Matt 3:14-15): “And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?’   But Jesus said to him in answer, ‘Do not be restrained because it is fitting for us to fulfill all truthfulness.'”

“Do you hear,” he said to his wife, “Do not be restrained – this means I will die.”

Anna Grigorievna remembered, “I could not restrain myself from tears. Fyodor Mikhailovich began to calm me, saying kind and consoling words, thanking me for the happy life which he had lived with me. He entrusted the children to me, and said that he believed in me and trusted I would always love and protect them. Then he said words to me which husbands rarely can say to their wife after fourteen years of married life: “Remember, Anya, I have always loved you passionately and have never been unfaithful to you ever, even in my thoughts!”

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Anna Grigorievna with grandsons Andrei and Fyodor; she inscribed the picture to Dostoevsky’s nephew

For the remainder of her life, Anna Grigorievna Dostoevskaya dedicated herself to the re-publication of the books of her husband. She wrote her memoirs with the sole goal of shedding light on the true character of the writer, which had already become distorted by descriptions of his contemporaries. She was at his death only 34 years of age, but there would be no discussion of a second marriage. “Whom could I marry after Dostoevsky?” she joked. “Perhaps only Tolstoy.” But in seriousness she wrote, “I gave myself entirely to Fyodor Mikhailovich when I was 20 years old. Now I am past 70 years old and I still belong completely and only to him in every thought and action.”

All her later life Anna Grigorievna spent gathering anything which related to Dostoevsky. In 1899 she turned over to the depository in the Historical Museum 1000 proprietary materials for the foundation of a special museum. She published, in 1906, The Bibliographic Handbook of the Works and Artistic Writings of F. M. Dostoevsky in Relation to his Life and Activities. She also opened in Staraya Rusa, where their dacha was located where they frequently lived, a Church Parish School (named after her husband) for children from poor peasant families, with a dormitory. The last year of her life, already seriously ill, she was left to starve in war torn Crimea. Anna Grigorievna died in Yalta June 22, 1918. A half century later her remains were transferred to the Aleksandr Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg where Fyodor Mikhailovich was buried.

Perhaps some may be astounded by the complete selflessness and admiration with which Anna related to her husband. He filled up her life without any room remaining. But who knows, could it have been any other way? Could some less selfless person have survived that burden of trials which accompanied Fyodor Mikhailovich? So it should not be surprising that alongside this greater author, in truth there turned to be a great woman.

“Many Russian writers would feel better, if they would have had wives such as Dostoevsky had,” said Leo Tolstoy after a meeting with her. How did it all turn out for her? If someone asked Anna Grigorievna to tell the recipe for a happy marriage with a greater writer, her own words would have served as an answer: “It is necessary to manage cautiously and with feeling so as not to break up. There is nothing in life more valuable than love. It follows therefore to forgive more, to search for the fault in yourself and to smooth out your own rough edges.”


Valeriya Posashko Mikhailova was born in 1985 in Minsk.  She studied journalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  A writer and journalist, she also is an accomplished triathlete and parishioner of the Orthodox church of the All Merciful Savior in central Moscow.  In addition to Dostoevsky her favorite authors are Gilbert Chesterton and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Thomas E. Herman is a retired pediatric radiologist from St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He is a member of the friends of Ukrainian radiology, and has lectured in Russian and Ukrainian on radiological topics, primarily in Ukraine.

To be the wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky (part 3)

By Valeriya Mikhailova (translated by Thomas E. Herman)

The original Russian version of this article was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (foma.ru), in Оctober 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman’s English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.

This is part 3 of a 4-part series about Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna. For Part 1, please click here; part 2 can be found here.

FIRST DIFFICULTIES

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Maria Dostoevskaya (nee Isaeva)

Dostoevsky said about his first marriage to Maria Isaeva, “She loved me without limit, and I loved her also without measure, but she and I did not live happily…” And in reality, his first marriage, which lasted 7 years, almost from the very beginning was unhappy. Both he and his wife had very strange personalities; and in essence they did not live together. So how was it that Anna Grigorievna turned out to be successful in making Dostoevsky happy?

Indeed after the death of her husband, in a conversation with Leo Tolstoy, Anna Grigorievna said (speaking actually about her husband and not herself), “Nowhere is the true character of a person revealed, as it is in daily life in his family.” So it was that there, in the family, in daily existence that she made known her good and wise heart…

After a serene and quiet home life Snitkina, now Dostoevskaya, entered into a house where she was forced to live under the same roof with Paul, the troubled, disorderly and spoiled stepson of Fyodor Mikhailovich. This 21-year-old young man constantly complained to his step father about his new in-law, and when left alone with her, tried to wound the young woman painfully. He reproached her for her inability to maintain the household, for the anxiety that she conveyed to his ailing stepfather, and he always demanded money for his own upkeep.

“This stepson of mine,” admitted Fyodor Mikhailovich, “is a good and honorable boy, but unfortunately, has an unusual character. He promised himself since childhood to do nothing, even though he has no personal fortune and at the same time has the most ludicrous understanding of life.”

And the other Dostoevsky relatives maintained a haughty and domineering attitude toward her. She quickly noticed that as soon as Fyodor Mikhailovich received an advance for a book, it would start – Emilia Fyodorovna, the wife of his brother Mikhail, appeared, or his younger unemployed brother Nikolai appeared, or Paul suddenly had an emergency need – for instance the need to purchase a new coat to replace the old one which had gone out of style. Once in the middle of winter Dostoevsky had returned home without his coat, having given it as security for the 50 rubles that Emilia needed – without delay… or the Chinese vase which had been given by friends, or the fur coat, or the silver service; all of which had to be pawned. So it was that Anna Grigorievna came to face the necessity of living in debt and living very modestly. And she accepted this necessity calmly and bravely.

One additional heavy burden for her was Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. Anna Grigorievna knew about it from the very first days of their acquaintance. But she hoped that his health would improve with a happy change of life. She witnessed his first seizure when the couple was visiting her family:

“Fyodor Mikhailovich was extremely animated and was discussing something interesting with my sister. Suddenly he interrupted his conversation in the middle of a word, sat up from the divan and began to lean to his side. I gazed at his altered face with amazement. And suddenly there rang out a terrible, inhuman cry, or more truthfully a howl, and Fyodor Mikhailovich began to lean forward…Subsequently it has happened to me tens of times to hear that “inhuman” howl, so common to an epileptic at the beginning of a seizure. And that howl always overwhelmed and frightened me…But it was then that I for the first time saw the terrible illness from which Fyodor Mikhailovich suffered. Hearing his cries and groans which did not stop for hours, his completely distorted face, his madly unmoving eyes, not understanding his disconnected speech, I almost became convinced that my dear, beloved husband had lost his mind, and what terror that idea brought me!”

She had hoped that after his marriage his seizures would become less frequent. But they continued…

She had hoped that there would be time – at least during the honeymoon – for them to be alone together, to talk, to enjoy the company of each other. But all of her free time was taken up by guests with their constant visits, by the relatives of Dostoevsky to whom she was obliged to offer refreshments and amusement, because Fyodor Mikhailovich was himself constantly occupied.

The young spouse lamented her prior quiet home life, where there had been no place for anxiety, sadness or conflict. She lamented that short period of time between the engagement and the wedding when she and Dostoevsky had spent an evening together expecting the fulfillment of their happiness… but happiness did not come in a hurry.

“Why did he, the greater reader of the human heart, not see how difficult it was for me to live?” she asked herself. She was tortured by her thoughts: he had fallen out of love for her, he had seen how much she was his inferior in spiritual and intellectual development (which of course was far from the truth). Anna Grigorievna thought about a divorce, reasoning that if she had ceased to be of interest to her beloved husband, and she could not be satisfied with meekly remaining with him – she would have to go away.”

“I had placed too much hope of happiness on my union with Fyodor Mikhailovich, and how bitter it was to me if this golden dream would not be realized!”

Once there occurred another in a chain of misunderstandings, and Anna Grigorievna could not bear it. She began to cry and could not be calmed. It was in this condition that Fyodor Mikhailovich found her. Finally, all her hidden doubts came to light. The spouses made a decision to get away. At first they went to Moscow and then they went abroad. That was in the spring of 1867. They returned to Russia only four years later.

TO SAVE THE MARRIAGE

Although Anna always emphasized that she had been a complete child, after her marriage she unusually quickly became accustomed to taking upon herself the concerns of the family “treasury”. Her primary aim was to guarantee her husband peace and the ability to occupy himself only with literary creativity. He worked primarily at night. Writing was for Fyodor Mikhailovich not only a vocation but also his only source of income, not having a personal fortune or estate, as for instance Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Goncharov had.   Fyodor Dostoevsky had to write all of his works (except the first novel) hastily, pressed in time by a commission, without which he could not survive.

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Anna Dostoevskaya in the 1870s

Intelligent and energetic, Anna Grigorievna took upon herself the dealings with creditors, the analysis of length vouchers; protecting her husband from all of these concerns. And she took a risk – she pawned her considerable dowry in order to go abroad to “save our happiness.” She was certain that only “continuous spiritual communication with my husband will be able to create the strong and harmonious family of which we dreamed.”

Incidentally, it was precisely her efforts which helped to uncover the fictitiousness of many of Dostoevsky’s supposed debts. In spite of his great life experience, he was a man very trusting, honorable and conscientious but ill disposed to real life. He believed everyone who came to him for money. After the death of his brother, Mikhail, who had owned a tobacco factory, there began to appear before Fyodor Mikhailovich people demanding the return of money which was owed to them by his brother. Among them were many scoundrels who decided to profit from the simplicity of the famous author. He did not demand from anyone confirmation or notes, he believed everyone. Anna Grigorievna took all of that upon herself. One can only imagine how much wisdom, patience and work was required to fulfill that task. In her memoirs, Anna admitted, “A bitter feeling rises up in me when I remember how my personal life was spoiled by the debts of others… All of my life at the time was darkened by constant concerns about where and for how much to pawn a certain thing, how to do it so that Fyodor Mikhailovich did not learn about the visit of a creditor or the pawning of a certain object. My youth was taken away, my health suffered and my nerves were frayed by this.”

She wisely guarded him from her own emotions: when she wanted to scream, she went to another room. She tried never to complain – not about her health, which was fairly poor, nor about her anxieties, but she always encouraged him. Believing that flexibility was a necessary condition for a happy marriage, fortunately she possessed this rare quality in full measure… even when he left to go play roulette and returned having lost all they had to live on…

Roulette was a dreadful misfortune. The great writer was addicted to it. He dreamed of winning in order that he could remove his family from bondage to debt. This fantasy possessed him entirely. Alone he was not able to find sufficient strength to free himself from its claws… ff it had not been for Anna Grigorievna’s unprecedented support and love for her husband and her absence of self pity.

“I was sickened to the depth of my soul to see how Fyodor Mikhailovich himself suffered,” she wrote. “He returned from playing roulette pale, haggard, barely able to walk, asked me for more money – he entrusted me with all the money – left and in a half hour returned all the more distraught, for more money. This continued until he had lost everything that we had.” But what about Anna himself? She understood that the problem was not a weak will, but this was a true illness, an addiction, an all-consuming passion. She never reproached him, did not quarrel with him and to his requests for more money for gaming, she did not oppose him. Dostoevsky on his knees asked her for forgiveness, wept, promised to give up his pernicious passion… only to return anew to it. Anna Grigorievna in these moments did not remain expressively silent; but she tried to convince her husband that all would get better, that she was happy, and would distract him with a walk or by reading the newspaper. And Dostoevsky calmed down…

When, in 1871, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote that he had given up roulette, his wife did not believe it. But he really never returned to the game: “Now everything is yours, entirely yours, all yours. Up until now half belonged to that accursed fantasy.”

Part 4 is available here.


Valeriya Posashko Mikhailova was born in 1985 in Minsk.  She studied journalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  A writer and journalist, she also is an accomplished triathlete and parishioner of the Orthodox church of the All Merciful Savior in central Moscow.  In addition to Dostoevsky her favorite authors are Gilbert Chesterton and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Thomas E. Herman is a retired pediatric radiologist from St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He is a member of the friends of Ukrainian radiology, and has lectured in Russian and Ukrainian on radiological topics, primarily in Ukraine.

To be the wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky (part 2)

By Valeriya Mikhailova (translated by Thomas E. Herman)

The original Russian version of this article was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (foma.ru), in Оctober 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman’s English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series about Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna. For Part 1, please click here.

GOOD AND UNHAPPY

image2The first impression from his meeting with Anna Grigorievna was actually not the most pleasant. She could not believe her good fortune that Professor Olkhin had suggested her to work with the famous Dostoevsky – the very same famous writer who was so admired in her home. The night before their first meeting she didn’t sleep but kept repeating, for fear of forgetting, the names of the heroes of his novels. She was certain that the author would quiz her about these. So with a pounding heart she hurried to his apartment on Cabinetmaker lane fearing that she might be even a minute late, but there…

There she was met by a sickly appearing man exhausted from life; a morose, dissipated, grouchy fellow who could not even remember her name. He dictated too quickly several lines and then snarled that she did not keep up, saying that nothing was going to come from this venture.

But at the same time Dostoevsky endeared himself to Anna Grigorievna with his sincerity, openness and credulity. During this, their first meeting, he related to her the most incredible episode of his life – one which he later described in detail in his novel, The Idiot. He related to her the moment when he – the 28-year-old Dostoevsky – because of his connection to the political coterie of followers of Mikhail Butashevich Petrashevsky (called the Petrashevtsy) – was sentenced to be shot and in fact was taken to the place of execution at the Semyonovsky parade ground in St. Petersburg.

“I remember”, he said, “how I stood on the Semyonovsky parade ground with my condemned comrades, saw the preparations, and knew that there were only five minutes left for me to live. But those minutes seemed to me to be years, decades, and it somehow seemed to me I had long to live. We had already been given to wear “death shirts” and divided into groups of three. I was the eightth person, in the third group to be shot. The first three were tied to the execution pillars. In two or three minutes both of the first two groups would be shot, and then would come our turn! How much I wanted to live, O my Lord God! How precious life seemed, how many good, how many decent things would I be able to do! I remembered all my past life, how I had not used it very well, how I wanted to experience life anew and to live long, long… Suddenly, there was heard the all clear signal and I was heartened. My comrades were untied from the pillars, led back and a new sentence was read: they sentenced me to four years of hard labor. I cannot remember any happier day!   I walked around my prison cell in the Alekseevsky crescent [of the Peter-Paul Fortress] and just sang, sang loudly, so happy was I to have life given back to me!”

Leaving the author after their first meeting, Snitkina took away a sad impression. It was a heaviness, not disappointment or only compassion. “For the first time in my life,” she wrote later, “I saw an intelligent, good man, but unhappy and abandoned by everyone…”

But that moroseness, aloofness, discontent which were on his surface did not hide from her the sensitive heart at the depth of his personality. Later Dostoevsky would write to his wife, “You see me usually, Anya, as morose, somber and capricious, but this is only the exterior which I have long had – having been broken down and corrupted by fate. But believe me, please believe me, on the inside there is something else.” And she not only believed but was surprised that other people could only see gloominess in her husband when he “is good, magnanimous, generous, delicate and compassionate, like no one else.”

26 DAYS

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Dostoevsky, 1860s

The future spouses faced 26 days of combined work to compete the novel, The Gambler. In this novel Fyodor Mikhailovich described his own passion for roulette gaming and his unhealthy but real attraction to the writer Apollinaria Suslova – that infernal woman, as the writer himself called her. But the passion for gambling which Fyodor Mikhailovich could not conquer for many years, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, due to the unusual patience and extraordinary wisdom of his young wife.

So it happened – Anna Grigorievna Snitkina took down in shorthand the novel, went home and frequently during most of the night transcribed the stenotype into ordinary language, and brought this back to the home of Fyodor Mikhailovich. Slowly he began to believe that it would work out. And on October 30, 1866 the manuscript was ready!

Then the author arrived with the prepared novel for the editor, and it turned out that Stellovskiiy … had left for the provinces and it was unknown when he would return. His servant refused to accept the manuscript in Stellovsky’s absence. The manager of the editorial office also refused to accept the manuscript. This was base villainy on the part of Stellovsky. But such meanness was not unexpected. With her usual energy Anna Grigorievna applied herself to the problem.   She asked her mother to consult with an attorney who said to take the work of Dostoevsky to a notary, to verify its date of completion. But Fyodor Mikhailovich arrived late at the notary. But he nevertheless was able to verify his work at the neighborhood administration with the notary’s receipt. He had been saved from bankruptcy!

As it turned out, Stellovsky, with whose name was associated not just with one scandal and not just one villainy but many in the lives of other writers and musicians, ended his days sadly; he died in a psychiatric hospital, at the age of only 50 years.

And so, The Gambler being completed, a heavy stone was removed from his shoulders, but Dostoevsky understood that he could not part with his young helper… So he suggested after a short interval to continue their efforts together on Crime and Punishment. Anna Grigorievna was also noticing a change in herself; all her thoughts were about Dostoevsky. Her former interests, friends, and diversions paled in luster. She very much wanted to be at his side.

Their recognition and avowal of love occurred in an unusual manner. Fyodor Mikhailovich began with a discussion of the subject for a novel he had thought of in which an older man, a worldly wise artist, fell in love with a young woman… “Consider for a minute yourself in her place,” he said with a quivering voice – “Imagine that this artist is me, and I acknowledged to you that I love you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, how would you answer?” – “I would answer that I love you and I will love you all my life!”

On February 15, 1867 Anna Grigorievna Snitkina and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky were married. She was 20 years old and he 45 years old. “God gave her to me,” the author not infrequently afterward would say about his second wife.

In truth, for her that first year turned out to be a year of both happiness and of a difficult deliverance from illusion. She entered into the home of a famous writer and well known interpreter of the human heart, Dostoevsky, whom she had so greatly admired; for a time excessively, calling him her idol. But the realities of life pulled her back to terra firma from that ephemeral paradise.

To go on to Part 3, click here.


Valeriya Posashko Mikhailova was born in 1985 in Minsk.  She studied journalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  A writer and journalist, she also is an accomplished triathlete and parishioner of the Orthodox church of the All Merciful Savior in central Moscow.  In addition to Dostoevsky her favorite authors are Gilbert Chesterton and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Thomas E. Herman is a retired pediatric radiologist from St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He is a member of the friends of Ukrainian radiology, and has lectured in Russian and Ukrainian on radiological topics, primarily in Ukraine.

To be the wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky (part 1)

By Valeriya Mikhailova (translated by Thomas E. Herman)

The original Russian version of this article was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (foma.ru), in Оctober 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman’s English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.

THE BEGINNING

Anna Grigorievna Snitkina entered into the house of her future husband, the 44-year-old already famous author Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, in many ways a naive young girl. Fyodor already bore on his shoulders many burdens of life – penal servitude and hard labor, exile, an unhappy first marriage, the death of his spouse and of his beloved brother, unending debts, the terrible physical pain of epileptic seizures, obsessive roulette gambling, loneliness and most importantly – a knowledge of life from its most unattractive side. Anna was optimistic, raised in a warm household without stress, in fact she was not able to manage a household under stress. The depth and strength of her character, which she did not notice in herself because of her own unpretentiousness, Dostoevsky was able to notice.

Their hurried marriage could easily have ended in rapid disappointment. But their marriage brought to the renowned author precisely the great happiness, which he had never known before. In those last 14 years of his life he wrote the most powerful and well known of his works. “You are the only woman who understood me,” he repeated to his Anya, and it was precisely to her that he dedicated his magnificent and final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

What kind of marriage was it? How was a fragile, inexperienced young lady to make a genius happy–a man who knew all the evil of life and yet had become the great preacher of the Light?

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Anna Grigorievna in the 1860s

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian actor L. M. Leonidov recalled his encounter with the widow of Dostoevsky, Anna Grigorievna.   Leonidov who played Dmitri Karamazov in the 1910 production of The Brothers Karamazov at the Moscow Art Theatre, wrote, “I saw and heard ‘something’ not like anything I had known, but through this ‘something’, through this 10-minute meeting, through his widow I sensed Dostoevsky; 100 books about Dostoevsky would not have given me as much as that encounter.”

Fyodor Mikhailovich recognized that he and his wife were united in the spirit. But at the same time he also recognized the disparity in their ages: between the spouses there was almost a quarter of a century of difference. This inequality in their life experiences could have led to two vastly different possibilities: either they suffered together several years, and then separated; or they lived together happily for the remainder of their lives. And judging by the fact that Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote with astonishment and delight on the 12th anniversary of his wedding that he was unceasingly and hopelessly in love with his Anya, obviously their life really was very happy.

Nevertheless their life was not easy from the beginning: the marriage of Anna Grigorievna and Fyodor Mikhailovich endured many problems and struggles – poverty, sickness, the death of children, and the fact that against their marriage rose up the entire Dostoevsky clan. But it helped them to resist that they – the spouses – looked at life in the same way, having been brought up in the same values.

Anna Grigorievna was born 30 August 1846 in the family of a minor functionary, Grigory Ivanovich Snitkin. Along with his elderly mother and four brothers, one of whom was also married and had children, Grigory Ivanovich and his family lived in a large apartment of 11 rooms. Anna Grigorievna recalled that in their large family unit a friendly atmosphere reigned. She knew no arguments to clarify family relationships and she thought that this was the case with any family.

The mother of Anna Grigorievna, Anna Nikolaevna Snitkina (Miltopeus), was of Swedish and Finnish descent, and was a Lutheran. Her love for her future husband presented her with a serious choice: marriage with this beloved man or faithfulness to the Lutheran faith. She prayed a great deal for a solution to this dilemma. And once she had a dream: in her dream she entered an Orthodox church and knelt down before the Shroud of Christ and prayed. Anna Nikolaevna took this as a sign; she decided to convert to Orthodoxy. To her astonishment, when she arrived at the church of Saints Simeon and Anna on Mokhovaya Street in St. Petersburg for her confirmation, she saw that very same Shroud in the exact position it had appeared in her dream.

From that time onward, Anna Nikolaevna Snitkina lived a life faithful to the Orthodox church, going often to confession and communion. The spiritual director she chose for her daughter Anya, whom she called by the diminutive Netochka, was from a young age the Archpriest Filipp Speransky. At the age of 13, while vacationing in Pskov, the young Anya decided to enter a monastery (convent). Her parents were able to have her return to St. Petersburg, although they resorted to the cunning ruse that her father was seriously ill.

In the Dostoevsky family, as he expressed it later in A Writer’s Diary, “The Gospel was known essentially from the earliest childhood.” His father, Mikhail Andreevich, was a physician of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor on Bozhedomka Street in Moscow. The fate of those whom the author would later make the heroes of his novels spread themselves before his eyes and here he learned compassion from an early age. This compassion was nevertheless similar in character to that of his father – strangely mixed with magnanimity, moroseness and irascibility. Dostoevsky’s mother, Maria Fyodorovna, whom he loved and respected immensely, was a person of uncommon goodness and sensitivity. She died like a saint: just before her death she regained her “complete consciousness, requested an icon of Our Savior, began blessing her family, giving barely audible blessings and admonitions.”

In Anya Snitkina Dostoevsky saw a similar good, sensitive and compassionate heart. Soon he felt that, “with me she might be able to be happy.” Or more precisely he meant, she might be happy, but not me. Did he really think about his own happiness? Like anyone he did think of it. He spoke with friends and hoped that after all the difficulties of his life and at his age, which for the generation of his parents was already old age, he would come to a quiet harbor and would be happy in his family. “Happiness has not yet occurred. I am waiting for it,” he said, already a man tired of life.

As often happens, before the moment of obtaining such happiness, fate brought to each of them tragic critical events. In the spring of 1866, after a year of continuous suffering, Anna’s father died. A year earlier the physicians had announced that Grigory Ivanovich was incurably ill and that there was no hope for any improvement. Anna was therefore obliged to leave the St. Petersburg Pedagogical Gymnasium where she was a student to spend more time with her father.

At the beginning of 1866 in St. Petersburg there opened stenographic courses, which would allow her simultaneously to continue her education and to help nurse her father – so Anna Grigorievna, at her father’s insistence, signed up for the courses. But after 5-6 lectures, she returned home in despair that “tarbar literacy [stenographic system]” had turned out to be a too difficult an undertaking. Grigory Ivanovich however was a little upset at the lack of patience and perseverance from his daughter and made her promise that she would finish the courses. If only he could have known how fatefully important was this promise.

What was happening at that time in the life of Dostoevsky? He was then already quite well known – all his works were even being read in the Snitkin household. His first novel, Poor Folk, written in 1845, had elicited the most complimentary praise from the critics. But then there was a swell of negative comments pelted down on his subsequent works, there was a sentence of hard labor in a penal camp, the death from tuberculosis of his first wife, and the sudden death of his beloved brother, Mikhail. In addition there were all the financial obligations and debts – alleged and real – of his brother, which Fyodor Mikhailovich took upon himself as the responsible party. At the time of his first meeting with Anna he was financially responsible for his grown 21-year-old stepson (the son of his first wife Maria Dmitrievna), for the family of his deceased brother Mikhail, and for assistance to his younger brother Nicholas. As he later recognized, “all my life I was squeezed financially.”

At the end of the summer of 1866 this genius of literature was led by these needs to sign an unfair, one-sided contract with his cunning and enterprising publisher, Fyodor Timofeevich Stellovsky. That fellow paid Dostoevsky 3000 rubles for which Stellovsky agreed to publish a complete collection of the works of Fyodor Mikhailovich, under the condition that Dostoevsky, by November 1, 1866, would write a large novel of real value. If there was a delay of even a month, Dostoevsky was to pay a large forfeiture, and if he could not produce a novel by December 1, the rights to all his works for 9 years were transferred to Stellovsky. Dostoevsky would be deprived of even a percentage from their publication. In effect this would doom the author to debtor’s prison and abject poverty. As Anna Grigorievna would later write in her “Memoirs”, Stellovsky “knew how to lie in wait for people in difficult moments and to trap them in his nets.”

Even the thought of writing a new full-value novel in such a short period brought Fyodor Mikhailovich to depression – he had not yet even finished work on Crime and Punishment, the first parts of which had come out in print, and that work needed to be finished. But by not fulfilling the conditions of Stellovsky, he risked losing everything. That prospect seemed more real than the possibility of laying on the desk of the editor a completed novel in the remaining time.

As Dostoevsky later admitted, in this difficulty, Anna Grigorievna was the first person to offer him any real help – and not just words. His relatives and friends sighed, groaned, lamented, sympathized, gave advice, but no one entered into this essentially hopeless situation. Except for this young lady, recently having completed the stenography course, but actually without any work experience, who appeared at the doors of his apartment. She had been recommended by Pavel Matveevich Olkhin, the founder of the stenography course, as the best of his graduates.

“It is a good thing that you are not a man,” said Dostoevsky after their first short meeting and writing trial.

“Why?”

“Because a man without fail would take to drink. You probably have not started drinking…?”

For Part 2, click here.


Valeriya Posashko Mikhailova was born in 1985 in Minsk.  She studied journalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  A writer and journalist, she also is an accomplished triathlete and parishioner of the Orthodox church of the All Merciful Savior in central Moscow.  In addition to Dostoevsky her favorite authors are Gilbert Chesterton and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Thomas E. Herman is a retired pediatric radiologist from St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He is a member of the friends of Ukrainian radiology, and has lectured in Russian and Ukrainian on radiological topics, primarily in Ukraine.